Published by Bethany House on April 2, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
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The waters off the West African coast are a menacing red, full of algae thick enough to stand on in places. In nearby villages, mysterious deaths start to occur--and the panic mounts. But before an alarm can be sounded, the sea currents shift, the algae vanishes, and the deaths stop. Everyone is relieved when things return to normal, and local government officials are happy to sweep the publicity nightmare under a rug.
An American biological researcher, Avery Madison, is dispatched by his employer to piece together exactly what happened, having long feared an ecological disaster just like this could occur. He's had little evidence to go on before now, and what he finds in West Africa is rapidly disappearing. But Avery knows the danger hasn't disappeared--it has just moved on.
When parts of the Caribbean start turning a familiar red right before hurricane season kicks into high gear, the implications are clear. If Avery and his colleagues can't convince the world of what's about to happen, toxic destruction could be loosed on American soil. Will their efforts prove too late?
I know what you’re wondering: “Reviewing a disease-thriller during a global pandemic – isn’t that too on the nose? How morbid can this guy be?” The answers are “maybe,” and “morbid enough I guess.” I’m one of the people who had a fun time watching Contagion back when lockdowns were setting in, and therefore thought I might enjoy this as well. I hoped it would make for an interesting read because of the relevance of the subject matter if nothing else. And so here we are.
I’ll say this for Davis Bunn; the man certainly did his research. This book came out last year and discusses innovations like DNA vaccines which didn’t become widely known by the public until this current pandemic. That impressed me.
The characters in Outbreak are also mostly fine. This isn’t really a character-driven story, so they don’t have much in the way of arcs to them, but as plot-drivers and audience avatars they generally worked. The one character that annoyed me was the love interest. She seems shoehorned into this book simply to add a romantic arc and thereby broaden readership appeal. Beyond that, she doesn’t seem to serve much of a functional role. It’s a shame, since there is a perfectly competent and well used female character already in the book, so it’s not like the book was a total sausage-fest in the first place.
Now, about the plot… The pacing is fast to a fault. Don’t get me wrong, I love a fast-paced story and for most of the book I quite enjoyed that part of it, but unfortunately too much was sacrificed to facilitate that pacing. The pace means the plot is never really given time to breathe so that things can be fleshed out. This leaves it feeling shallow and rushed. Indeed, at a hair under 300 pages I would argue that Outbreak could use some more length.
The biggest issue with the plot is not so much “plot holes” as it is a lack of exposition. Let me explain. The plot of this book is like when a student doesn’t show all his work or skips steps on a complicated math problem. The answer is correct, but you can’t quite see how he got there. Similarly, the plot is like a connect-the-dots picture in which a portion of the dots have been removed. You can still see what the picture is depicting, but it’s messy and not as clear as it could be. In Outbreak, it feels a lot of the time like the reader is being kept in the dark, or like the characters know more than the reader. The characters definitely feel the stakes and threat of this disease a lot more than the reader ever does, and almost every time a character starts to explain something, they get interrupted. These interruptions continue until a large but still inadequate exposition-dump following the climax. Had things been fleshed out more, and had there been more exposition spread across more of the book, Outbreak would rate higher in my mind.
So, what do I think about Outbreak in a nutshell? It’s fine. Not good, not bad, but fine. I didn’t mind reading it, but I didn’t walk away entirely satisfied either. I can’t tell you to run out and buy this book, but if you’re bored and stuck at home during quarantine, it will certainly serve to pass the time. If you like disease-thriller type books, others I’d recommend would be Germ by Robert Liparulo, The Ark by Boyd Morrison, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, and Plague Maker by Tim Downs.